Being Prepared to Be Wrong

Ornithopter and creator George R. White

Ornithopter and creator George R. White at St. Augustine. Photographed September 21, 1927.

Whilst thinking about how to approach writing this piece on creativity, I happened to mention the subject on Twitter. When I introduce particular themes to my followers, it’s quite often a deliberate attempt to get ideas bouncing back and forth, in order that I might discover a new angle. On this occasion, however, it was just a passing mention. I mean, I’ve been writing for over twenty years—what could anyone out there really tell me about creativity?

Well, quite a lot, it would appear. One of my followers immediately mentioned Sir Ken Robinson—leader in education, creativity and innovation—and I dutifully trotted along to YouTube to check out his talks. (Incidentally, I highly recommend you take a look; apart from his lectures being very informative, he’s also a very amusing chap.)

Robinson’s focus in the first video I watched was on the way in which we “[educate] people out of their creative capacities”. This struck an immediate chord but, more than this, it was his focus on being prepared to be wrong that particularly hit home. Admittedly, this was in part because it flattered my own creative philosophy, supporting thoughts I’ve had for some time but never really examined (for fear that looking too closely might steal away the magic!), but, also, it struck me as eminently sensible and something that isn’t addressed often enough.

So today I want to discuss being prepared to be “wrong” (please note the quotation marks!)

One of the first things anyone working in any creative field discovers is just how diverse opinion is (and, following on quickly from this, just how willing the majority of people are—whether qualified or not—to share that opinion). Generally, this is a positive. Ideas, opinions, suggestions, these are the things that can, with the right attitude, spark creativity. They can also, however, utterly and completely stifle it.

Peer pressure. We all remember that, I’m sure. A phrase much used when speaking of children. That essentially human need to fit in and be accepted, to not stick your head above the parapet (because we all know what happens when we do that, right?) A folly we recognise very early on, if we are lucky, but, actually—if we are truthful with ourselves—one that the majority of us never completely shake.

Fear of being wrong . . . is the number one inhibitor amongst the many aspiring writers I know.

Fear of being wrong—of doing something somehow “unacceptable”, of producing a too far-out piece of work, of sharing an opinion that might be misconstrued—is the number one inhibitor amongst the many aspiring writers I know. They understand the value of original ideas, but they, as Ken Robinson would quite rightly insist, have been to varying degrees educated out of the risk-taking process that leads to those original ideas. With some, even the very idea of letting other people know that they are writing at all is something they aren’t comfortable with. Why? Well, because, I suppose, they are afraid that they’ll be laughed at—that their spouses, family and friends might somehow think that they are getting above themselves or just living in cloud cuckoo land. (I still very clearly remember some of the looks I used to get when I first “came out” as a writer—so these fears most certainly are not groundless!)

So what to do?

It’s important to look at the terms we are dealing in, first of all. “Wrong”. Just what does that mean? Well, among the Oxford Dictionaries definitions we have “not correct or true” and “unjust, dishonest or immoral”—which pretty much covers it, I suppose. Except that it doesn’t, does it? The terms used to define the original term are actually rather vague and open to interpretation themselves. In order to know what is not correct or true, we have to first decide what is correct and true, and in my experience there are few absolutes in the world of creativity.

This realisation was the real starting point for me. Creativity requires a certain amount of self-confidence—or, rather, confidence in one’s own creative ability, in one’s own capacity to develop those creative skills. This simply isn’t possible if you are constantly asking yourself “what will so-and-so think of this?”, “will my editor like it?” or even “what will the neighbours think?” The first part of the creative process is an awareness that “wrong” is, like much in life, highly subjective—and that hearing that particular word from certain people is the biggest thumbs up you could ever wish for. Understanding this goes at least some way towards creating the necessary fearlessness that anyone working within any creative industry requires . . . that anyone aspiring towards creativity requires.

Risk-taking . . . this is at the heart of any creative endeavour . . .

This isn’t to say that the opinions of others don’t matter. It’s an extremely fine line between taking on board criticism, filtering/disregarding it and using it effectively, and being a prima donna. Who to listen to, what advice to take—these are things that probably can’t be taught in the classroom or workshop environment. Experience, however, is a great educator in this particular arena. As soon as people whose work and track record you respect start picking up on the aspects of your work that you feel particularly original and worthwhile, you start to develop benchmarks to measure by. Before being published, I would often rely upon fellow writers and the few agents and editors who would actually take the time to comment on my submissions to help me gain this vital sense of what was working and what wasn’t. Today, I listen to my readers (though never too much—because that would be creatively fatal!)

Risk-taking . . . this is at the heart of any creative endeavour—however large or small (and, don’t forget, even those terms are relative!) The willingness to embrace that, to be prepared to be “wrong”, is so often the difference between “success” and “failure”. The worst kind of creative failure, however, is to not even try. Simply bowing to that residual sense of peer pressure and never raising your hand to offer your input, never putting pen to paper, never picking up the paintbrush or the palette knife, never telling your boss about your ideas for creatively solving a specific administrative problem because you are afraid of being “wrong” —that is creative failure of the worst kind . . . or, I would even go so far as to say, the only kind.



Gary Murning

Gary Murning

Gary Murning is a novelist living in the northeast of England. His work, largely mainstream fiction, focuses on themes that touch us all — love, death, loss and aspiration — but always with an eye to finding an unusual angle or viewpoint. Quirky and highly readable, his writing aims to entertain first and foremost. If he can also offer a previously unfamiliar perspective or insight, all the better.

His first novel, If I Never, is published by Legend Press and is now available from all major bookstores. Click here to buy If I Never.

His second novel, Children of the Resolution, was published early in 2011. For more information please visit Gary’s Amazon page.

Late in 2011, Gary also set up his own micropublishing company, GWM Publications, with the intention of publishing his own work not considered a good fit for his current publisher. The experience of having full creative control, whilst daunting, is something he relishes. The first GWM Publications release is The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts and is available now for pre-order.

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Children of the Resolution

Children of the Resolution

If I Never

If I Never

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The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts



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11 thoughts on “Being Prepared to Be Wrong

  1. Gary, you’ve raised so many excellent points, one being: that “risk-taking” is essential to being creative. I agree. Anytime we make ourselves vulnerable through our expression it can amount to a huge risk. On the other hand, I also believe that creativity has the personality of Sybil: there is no ‘one’ type of creativity (Also see Trish Nicholson’s post, “Dimensions of Creativity.”). And, perhaps, there are different levels of risk to be had? (Also see my comment on Sean Giorgianni’s post, “Imagine You’re On A Ship“).

    You’ve made another brilliant observation, which is that creativity requires a certain amount of self-confidence. This I believe to be true, if the artist wants to maintain, or recover, their self-esteem after a plunge into the void. The bigger the risk, the more resilience we need.

    I applaud all Creatives, who have the courage to expose their unique expressions and—particularly in today’s cyber-world—allow the entire human race into their “holiest” of sanctuaries.

    Thank you for this engaging leap into the world of idea-sharing.

    • I think you are quite right, Terre; there certainly is no one type of creativity – another reason why it’s so important, I think, to not get too hung up on words like “wrong”. For example, my novel Children of the Resolution has a double first person narrative. Writing it this way felt very natural to me. I had one character who had been right at the heart of the story telling it his way, and another observing his telling of the story and taking a more, at first, analytical approach to what he was saying. Every reader I’ve spoken to about the book seems to have accepted this as a perfectly natural creative approach to providing balance to the story. Except for one reader who found the switches “jarring”. Was she wrong? Was I wrong? No. The truth is, I don’t think either of us were wrong. Having looked at the kind of books she was accustomed to reading, it became apparent that she simply wasn’t all that familiar with this kind of creative form. Her expectations of what creativity should deliver were different to mine. She wanted linearity and singularity.

      So, yes, many types of creativity and many varying types of expectation. Which leads nicely onto Trish’s comments on judgement etc…

  2. Hi Gary, you’ve raised a major issue here that applies to everyone. As a society we have become very judgemental, with or without expertise. From Klout to book reviews, we are too quick to measure and number without even knowing what those numbers really mean. It can eat away at self-confidence and I’m not sure how we can stop it. But we can support each other. I’ve seen a lot of mutual support between writers,artists and musicians on social media, I’m not sure about other activities, but I think this is the most important thing we can do for each other to sustain our self belief. I’m glad you mentioned Sir Ken Robinson, he has clear insights into what is needed in future education. It applies to management too:despite excellent books and advice over the years,there are still too few organisations with a learning culture that fosters creativity. Thank you for an excellent essay.

    • Hi Trish – regarding the judgemental nature of our society etc, I couldn’t agree more. So far, I have been pretty fortunate with regard Amazon reviews etc, but I have had colleagues who have been judged very harshly by some readers over there. More to the point, unfairly. There is often this notion, I find, that subjective opinion is considered by many to be objective fact, and this becomes increasingly apparent when you look at customer reviews. Not just of books but of all kinds of products and services. (And, yes, once again you are quite correct; few seem to really pay attention to just what those numbers/measures, mean. A prime example is that some book sites have rating systems that says things like “I didn’t like this” and “I love this”, whilst others will use terms like “bad”, “good” and “very good”. The majority of people treat these two measures in exactly the same way. Which of course they are not.)

      Ken Robinson is good, isn’t he? As I mention, I’ve only just discovered him and have already taken so much away from his talks.

  3. Excellent post Gary. I would add…

    * Everyone is creative, not just “creatives” in the traditional sense. Creativity is more about solving complex problems than it is about creating art, which is only one way to be creative. So, you post applies to artists, and, everybody else!

    * The fear of being wrong, as you indicate, is rooted in comparison with others. Everything we do tends to be compared with others, from school grades, to cars, houses, jobs, salaries, clothes — as well as creative products and output. So, this is the system we live in. It takes courage to break out of this and simply not care if you are doing something different. If you didn’t care what people thought, you could do almost anything…it’s very creatively enabling not to give a damn about what other people think.

    * Recent scientific research suggests that our initial reaction to something truly new and different is like feeling a bit sick. The words used to describe this reaction are “vomit” and “poison”. This is true for our own very different ideas as well as those of others. So, when doing different things it’s important to remain courageous even when it feels pretty icky. On the other side of that feeling is something really dazzling and potentially innovative.

    • Gregg, insightful comments. I agree that problem-solving and innovation is at the heart of creativity, and that everyone is a problem-solver, in unique ways. I threw out some questions in Sean’s piece, “Imagine You’re On a Ship, because I also do not believe the evidence of creativity is producing an object. However, when trying to discuss this subject in terms of artists, painters, writers, innovators, etc. it’s necessary to have a term to use as a frame of reference, no? Hence, the term Creatives.

      I’m so glad you brought up courage. ‘Not giving a damn’ is the sister of Courage. And both are roots of healthy self-esteem. Hand-in-hand with that: poorly delivered criticism (non-constructive) says more about the speaker than the receiver.

      I’d like to hear more about the scientific research you mention. Do you have any links to share?

  4. Gary,
    A very enjoyable piece. Thank you.
    I took my family to the Tate Modern. I heard a couple saying ‘I could have done that’ whilst looking at a ‘simple’ piece of work. I am very proud to say that my daughter commented to me ‘But they didn’t, and the artist did’. To do something, no matter how simple, is the first step to doing anything at all. So many people are quick to pass judgement without consideration of the mental effort and apprehension it takes for an artist to commit to the canvas.

    • Yes, this is very true, Emsity. Makes me think of dancers. The best – whether performing Swan Lake or street dancing – make it look effortless. But head into the rehearsal studios and you’ll see blood, sweat and tears! And I think that is what many amateur critics (and professionals, for that matter) forget: just what a huge emotional, physical and psychological commitment any creative act entails.

  5. Gary, you are right on here. You should also know that the academic world in the US is one of the places where “fitting” is often seen just as important as the research one does. Those young professors who don’t follow the department orthodoxy are often ripped to shreds by their and sometimes denied tenure. Of all the places in the world where going where the evidence and your gut takes you, universities should ne one of those places

    • Thanks for that, Michael – and, yes, I think you are quite right regarding the academic world (something else that Ken Robinson talks about). And it is positively shameful. Seems to me that conformity has been shifted to the top of the curriculum in so many educational establishments. Often very political, too. People protecting their positions. Quite, quite wrong.

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